John Dalla Costa

By John Dalla Costa[*]


[This Keynote speech was delivered at CILE 7th Annual International Conference - Doha, Qatar - March 23, 2019]


I feel this morning as though I am entwined in a nexus of blessings. Meeting Dr. Emad Eldin Shahin in Rome several months ago, our exchange quickly warmed into desire for deeper conversation. I am very grateful for his invitation, and for the courtesy you are according me to frame some of my lessons from over two decades work on a global ethic.

During my theological studies, I was taught by a post-colonial scholar to declare one’s stance - making clear the position, perspective, and even biases, from which an analysis can proceed. As a Christian, a Catholic, a Canadian, I stand here as a man of faith, seeking to apply my moral sensibilities and ethical tools to engage the modern world. I look forward to the questions and insights we will receive from today’s presenters. And with the recitation of the Qur’an still resonating, I am very grateful, as well, to be setting the work of this day before our One, Holy God.

At this moment, our world is entrapped in a series of interconnected crises, and entangled in an impenetrable web of politics, economics, religion, culture and environment. While post-modernists see this as a time when moral narratives are fractured, and ethics are considered relative, the actual reality we share is comprised of what the interfaith theologian Paul Knitter calls “meta-problems.” As embodied creatures of a single planetary environment, we share basic needs and human hopes, which, in turn, opens the door for what could be termed a post post-modern meta-ethics.

While we know rationally that global-level cooperation is needed, there is all too much evidence in our world of resistance, and even hateful opposition, to what we are proposing. I believe that this is an existential test for those of us who believe in One God. God’s creation is gift, so any abuse of this gift, especially any knowing corruption of its blessings, erases our ability as believers to praise and testify to the God we worship.

So much is at stake, yet what is rare and different about this moment is that we need every ounce of moral wisdom from one another. Meta-problems can only be answered, in my view, with meta-diversity for meta-creativity, through meta-dialogue.

As an example of the opposite position I would like to look for a moment at Brexit. What is happening in Britain is a global ethics outlier for three reasons.

First, it shows us how quickly politics without a larger moral compass can degenerate into parochial paralysis. Britain now wants to leave the world which it once largely ruled. But it can’t. Its food and fish, clothing and cars, security and stability, come from elsewhere, and rely on others. Finance flows internationally. So too does pollution and acid rain. No country has high enough tariffs or walls to keep out global warming, Facebook, and rising sea levels. The fracturing within Britain, as well as between Britain is, in many ways, due to the excesses of globalization. The point is that we’ve had the wrong type of globalization. However, the paradox which Brexit can’t really resolve is that the moral and ethical meta-problems from this form of globalization can only be addressed by working together even more closely and collaboratively.

Second, Brexit is an outlier in that the surging populism reflects a larger global phenomenon of disenfranchisement. Over the last three decades I have studied the relationship between ethics and trust. In my research I have learned that trust and suspicion are not causal opposites. Whereas suspicion is fuelled by fear, and grows as fears grow, trust is generated when the hope in a promise is fulfilled.

Scholars tell us that trust grows when the party holding some promise fulfills duties which alleviate or protect the vulnerability of the other. This word - vulnerability - is of great, and I would say holy, significance.

Brexit is what happens when institutional promises are broken, when people are not seen or heard, or left exposed in their desperate vulnerability. Although used for political or economic purposes, fear is a moral concern because it fuels hatred, propels violence, deepens divisions from difference, and vilifies the stranger. Before we try to build a rationale for a global ethic, we ethicists need to become vulnerable ourselves, facing fears together, inspecting root causes together, and then imagining together the structures and solutions for balance, and harmony, and bringing hope to the table.

Third, Brexit is an outlier for how the urgencies of our environmental crisis are inextricably entwined in our economy and culture. Surveys before both the Copenhagen and Paris Climate Change Summits reported that even people who had expressed grave concern for the environment had given up hope.

From my trust research, I call this the “despair from pragmatism” - believing that financial requirements preclude being able to do what is right to sustain life.

Reversing this paralyzing despair, will require several contradictory capabilities on our part as global ethicists. We will need to convey - and embody ourselves - an ever intensifying urgency, while practicing patience and persistence. We will need to be learning-teachers, situating our expertise in the needs, wounds, fears, and wisdom of those we hope to inspire and collaborate with. And we particularly need as religious people, to surrender some of the certitude of our worldview so as to constructively engage the ambiguity of problems bigger than any of us can solve on our  own.

For the rest of my presentation I would like to propose and examine some of these new capabilities, not so much from the perspective of the world’s need for a global ethics, but more for those of us who are its agitators and advocates.

My ethical training demands that I share a bit of my methodology with you. To examine this nest of interconnections, I will be delving into two quite diverse sources. Having taught business ethics in a secular university, I first want to examine some of the lessons from systems theory that have emerged from management studies. Second, recognizing that dialogue among religions is crucial for  global ethics, I will turn to Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato si, in which he invited all the people of the world to work together as stewards of what he calls “our common home.”

What then has systems theory taught us? Systems science is a fairly recent discipline, with overlapping lessons from various spheres - including nature and neurology, the internet, our planetary climate and human genome, as well as from Facebook, Google, and oceanic currents. It is important to remember that much of  this systems understanding has come into focus only after the Parliament of  the World’s Religions promulgated the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic in 1992. For the most part, we are culturally, politically, religiously and morally still much more linear than systematic in our learning, thinking and training. As I told my hyper-competitive business school students, we ethicists are still rushing to create 1G moral bandwidth for a world that has exhausted 4G productivity and is already moving on to 5G.

At about the same time that religious scholars were crafting their declaration, another group of experts - from physics - were scrambling to design and create the most complex scientific instrument ever to be built: the Great Hadron Collider. Researchers had reached a wall with existing technologies, and could no longer hope to resolve the next generation of questions relating to quantum mechanics.

CERN is a publicly funded enterprise, with a mission to advance scientific learning for all of humanity. Funded mostly by its twenty-two European member-states, CERN has working partnerships and contracts with 50 or so other countries, including Qatar and Canada. Altogether, over 1,500 scientific laboratories, universities and research institutes are involved in CERN’s experiments, involving the hands- on input of over 10,000 scientists from a host of disciplines.

The idea for the Large Hadron Collider was born in the late 1980’s to search for the missing Higgs boson particle. CERN’s responsibility was to build a machine, costing 9.2 billion dollars to perform experiments that were not yet fully defined, using technology largely not yet invented, to satisfy the diverse needs of physicists and scientists, who by nature, training, and disciplinary focus selfishly fought for every advantage to accrue to their own domain. How did CERN respond organizationally? What did they do to manage this project, which was of a complexity far beyond the expertise of anyone to oversee in totality?

For the most part, today’s political, corporate, and public organizations, govern and manage hierarchically via a pyramid. To its great credit, the leaders at CERN recognized this to be a recipe for disaster. Instead, these mavens of  mathematics turned to nature for its ordering metaphor and model.

The group responsible for CERN adopted a tree to symbolize its aim and processes. Leadership reimagined its role to serve as the roots of this tree, both to anchor the organism so as to better withstand the inevitable winds of resistance or failure, and to provide essential nutrients so that each branch, twig and leaf - in their diversity - could grow and thrive.

Invisible though they be, the roots - we’ve since learned - are like the brains of a tree. They are not only of discrete service to their own organism, but participate underground in networks of exchange with other plants, and with fungi and other organisms. We have recently learned that trees and roots communicate, using chemicals and electric charges to pass on warnings, such as from infestation or fire, or to share nutrients with beleaguered neighbours - even those of other species.

A visual metaphor was not enough. CERN understood that changing values was the prerequisite for changing minds and behaviours. From the lessons academics collected in their book Collisions and Collaboration, we can identify four crucial initiatives supporting this change.

First, all the parties involved participated in dream exercises to identify the most outrageously optimum outcome each team or scientist hoped to realize. This was done to both generate personal inspiration and imagination for breaking new ground, and to recognize, by hearing the dreams of others, that there were multiple and equally legitimate claims on resources being put at their disposal.

Second, as it became clear that individual dreams depended on others dreams being fulfilled, people began to shift their allegiance from their own discipline, to the larger shared cause. Accountability grew horizontally from sharing this inspiring dream peer-to-peer and person-to-person. And this development created the surplus trust to help make the hard and necessary compromises on the way.

Third, the organism-organization adopted a principle close to what Catholic Social Teaching calls “subsidiarity.” In essence, this meant putting the decision-making authority for the key scientific and investment decisions in the hands of those experts who were imagining, designing, and co-building the elaborate technologies and mechanism for the experiments. Here too we have a big lesson for a global ethic. The moral authority for the endeavour at CERN grew via participation, with people growing the relational sensibilities to take more responsibility for one another’s vulnerabilities.

The fourth initiative, perhaps the most important, was to help create the personal capacities for developing into this shared responsibility. CERN scholars called this process instilling “care for self.” They did not mean unleashing selfish care. Rather, understanding the fundamentally relational qualities of systems, they meant helping very accomplished people breakout of their intellectual cocoons to recognize the mutual interdependencies upon which their own self-realization depended.

What are the lessons that CERN can teach us toward a Global Ethic?

  1. Credibility and cohesion flourish through dialogue and participation. Top-down pronouncements, which by definition follow a linear process of dissemination, are ill suited to the complexity of our quandaries, and the ethical ambiguity they imply.
  2. A global ethic is a road, not a road block. Indeed, using the tree metaphor, we could say that it is a nutrient not a fruit. As important as it is for a global ethics to incite care and responsible constraint for our endangered environment, we cannot forget that our ethics are also the incubators for our most audacious dreams.
  3. As with the dream-exercise at CERN, the audacious hope for a global ethic needs to be co-imagined and co-defined by those who will be applying its aspirations. In the trust research we found that the key to growing moral capital across a diverse group is for persons to experience being seen and heard in an authentic way. One recent study in the management literature simply posits that the fastest way to build trust is to give it.
  4. When diverse disciplines or values are involved, a thin veneer of commonality will not be sufficient to affect change or culture. CERN did not change its aim, but rather it changed its structure. The governors chose not to be the top-level arbiters, but rather the roots that provided stewardship from below. A global ethic similarly cannot function merely as an add-on to established theories or  religious principles. Instead, it needs to be fundamentally embedded within our differences, thereby allowing diversity to enrich the whole as well as the discrete parts.

This idea is not to promote syncretism. Quite the opposite. Promoting understanding of a shared ethics ensures that our different traditions are not mere artifacts in the global ecological conversation, but rather dynamic and vital ingenuities for the moral improvisation we need to restore global, ecological balance.

It was in this spirit of interdependent integrality that Pope Francis issued his anxiously awaited encyclical on the environment. Encyclicals are teaching documents from the Pope, usually addressed to cardinals, bishops and theologians, to provide guidance on a particular historical context or crisis. Instead, Pope Francis took the unprecedented step of addressing this document to all the peoples of the world.

According to historians, Laudat si is the first encyclical translated into Arabic, and published simultaneously with the other languages used by the Vatican.

The first words of the Pope’s encyclical are from a prayer praising God for creation, written by his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves, or as a mere setting in which we live” writes Pope Francis. “We are part of nature, included in it, and thus in constant interaction with it.” (139) Beyond the content, the methodology Francis uses is staggering: as a Pope he reaches out to scientists as well as mystics; as a Catholic he heeds lessons from other religious leaders as well as non-believers; and as a teacher he seeks to learn how to grow the personal conversion towards a new culture for our “common home.”

Although Francis never uses the terms from a global ethic, by its form as well as content the encyclical assumes an underlying shared morality, based on our immersion, inclusion and interdependence in nature. Because of our interconnectedness, any loss of diversity in the natural world, or in the human world, wounds us all, impoverishing our resilience, and posing an all-too-real threat to our survival. When Francis introduces an “integral ecology” as home for our "integral humanity,” he is saying that our moral motivations and ethical choices need to be incited from a living synthesis of all that is within as well as around us.

For ethicists or teachers of ethics, the implications are profound. Integrity, which we commonly use to describe the human capacity to live out our interior values into public action, is no longer a personal or subjective act. Sharing a common home, with each of us having a role in protecting and building it, requires personal integrity as a larger fusion - something co-fashioned and co-manifested together, from being in relationship with one another, and from being inexorably immersed as creatures in God’s creation.

Francis’ methodology models this integrality from diversity. As a scientist, he lays out the data from peer- reviewed research which details the environmental crisis in its scope and dangerous scale. As a priest, he translates the facts of  this environmental degradation into an understanding that our indifference to God’s creation, and our intentional abuse of it, violates the holy gift God has offered us as Creator. This turn against God’s gift inevitably turns our back on our neighbours. “The disappearance of culture, “explains Francis, “can be just as serious, or even more so, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of  a dominant lifestyle… can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems.” (145)

As a theologian, Francis is willing to risk the exclusions of orthodox teaching because of his understanding that harming the earth harms people, and that violating nature violates men and women, and that environmental imbalance correlates to social injustice, and that it is these grave transgressions that also most risk delegitimizing the moral authority of our religious revelations and traditions. Francis sees “everything in the world as connected,” but recognizes - and this speaks directly to the new work towards a global ethic - “that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis.” (53)

As a bishop, Francis aims to teach those most intimately in his care to develop the deep compassion for the suffering of others. He exposes the flaws in our culture of consumption, and while praising the gifts and blessings we have realized from new technologies, he insists that we now need to grow our sense of responsibility to match the capabilities and risks unleashed by modern ingenuity. None of us can do this alone. Citing the bishops from Africa, he reminds us that “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.” (14)

As a global leader, Francis challenges the institutions behind our global economics and politics, to render a full accounting of the costs from reducing nature to a utility, and from reducing human persons into mere nodes of consumption or production. Again, technology is not the problem. Rather, it is that “reductionism” by which “a certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us.” (101) Healing the earth’s crisis pivots on healing our wounded anthropology. Indeed, the ecological morality for our “common home” is fundamental to protecting and enhancing our human rights. With this global view, Francis extends inclusion radically across not only our differences but also across generations. He writes: “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.” (159)

Many of these insights and sensibilities will resonate with you, as is already clear from the Muslim scholars who have long been working on ethical responses to our global environmental reality, or have more recently responded directly with analysis of Francis’ encyclical. Pope Francis is simply giving us a starting point for deeper dialogue; his is not a conclusion, but an invitation. Without using the words, he is challenging us to imagine and activate global ethics, providing what I believe to be the hermeneutics for realizing shared moral purpose and exchange.

In his papacy and writings, Francis is promoting what I would call a hermeneutics of humility. This asks us to interpret the signs of our times not as conquering experts or all-knowing problem solvers, but as finite beings with inadequate understanding of creation’s multiplicative complexity. Humility in this context is not a passive act. Quite the opposite, as was learned at CERN, humility demands the courage - much like our father Abraham - to give up some of  what we know, so as to learn what we newly need to understand.

I also read this encyclical as fostering a hermeneutics of heeding. Much of the data the Pope introduces to detail our environmental crisis has long been known and validated by science. The issue is not so much more learning, as acting on what we already know, with the all-out care, urgency, intelligence and cooperation that this grave, shared threat poses. Francis is summoning more dialogue, even as he proffers it in this dialogic document. But as with the global ethic, this dialogue must help us generate the heedfulness that, in the language of the theologian Bernard Lonergan, turns facts into understanding, and understanding into responsibility.

At the core of Laudato si is a concern for others and the earth which reflect a hermeneutics of vulnerability which I mentioned earlier. Our wealth, technology and lifestyle often distance us from the real ecological, social and economic costs of what we buy and consume. Restoring balance, achieving sustainability, and undoing injustice cannot be exercises of the intellect alone. As befits our interdependence, we need to have our hearts formed and informed by the agony of those already suffering - already devastated by climate change - so as to share the burden of the environment we share. Only in sharing such vulnerability can we hope to create the moral authority for inciting ethical change, or guiding it.

Recovering the moral imperative of our vulnerability is necessary to counter the now dominant mindset of our economy and businesses, which I call of a hermeneutic of wounding. With its mantra that “greed is good,” this hermeneutic of  wounding - in the name of  profits and consumption - not only justifies deadly imbalance, but celebrates it. At a time calling for restraint, excess has become the new normal. Our global economy, as now configured, does not cause environmental and social wounding as an innocent byproduct, but rather as an intentional advance on making consumption ever-more addictive.

To again counter this human tendency to forget and abuse God’s creation, Francis introduces what I regard as a hermeneutic of harmony. The very notion of human integrity implies a harmony of parts, with mind, heart, and soul alive to reality, engaged in its dilemmas and opportunities, and open, through prayer and worship, to that God-given wisdom that allows us to live in unity with the Divine force generating and upholding all creation. For Francis, harmony is the proto-rationale for dialogue, and for the integral- ecology which is home and host for our integral communities and integral humanity.

Francis’ encyclical is sober, sombre and serious, yet deeply hopeful and even joyful. How can this be?

First, his faith demands a trust in God by which he sees even the darkest crisis as a moment of encounter with God, and with God’s creatures. Once again, this is an Abrahamic quality. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes of Abraham: “He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist. He believed, hoping against hope, that he would become the father of many nations according to what was said, Thus shall your descendants be. That is why it was credited to him as righteousness.” (4:21-22)

Second, Francis calls us to re-appreciate in its awesome splendour the beauty in nature and in the world’s diversity, and to become makers of beauty. This shifts anthropology from consumption to creativity - from a focus on personal satisfaction, to instead using one’s gifts and talents to proffer beautiful things for others to appreciate. Creativity scientists have shown that creating is quintessentially a collaborative act. We not only make beautiful things for others to appreciate. Usually, as though of us who do theology or scholarship know all too well, we are creating within a fabric comprised of an untold number of threads others have woven to help us understand our story, and now make a contribution to it.

Hope and beauty are crucial too for how we bring a global ethic out from the miasma of possibility and into the realm of  practical inspiration.

I would like to conclude by quickly sharing another story about trees. The German forester, Peter Wohlleben, discovered a very unique formation of moss growing in the woods, which he had been walking through and protecting for over thirty years. The moss only grew in a large circle, and it was always there. When he investigated further he found that the moss was actually harvesting sap from an almost completely submerged tree trunk.

With Germany’s long established bureaucracy, Wohlleben was able to trace this stump to a tree that has been harvested almost five hundred years ago. Without any trunk, without any branches, and without any leaves, how could this tree still be living, let alone feeding other living organisms? Wohlleben eventually determined, which science now confirms, is that this tree was in fact given nutrients and kept alive by the roots of the other trees around it. Scientists have determined that not all trees are so altruistic, but that cooperation, to the point of  co-nurturing, is indeed an attribute of  a dynamic system in balance - a system largely invisible but a life-giving system nonetheless.

Perhaps our task today, and in this on-going work for a global ethic, is to imagine the hidden network of roots as a metaphor for what we, as people of faith and prayer, can bring to the ecosystem. The soil in which our religions are planted is the One Source, the One God. Each of our religions has unique gifts and resources for drawing the essential nutrients for a human life, and for a moral life, from our God.

Our roots are, as God’s children, entwined in this soil, sometimes in friction to find the way forward, but at times also interdependent, providing for one another something essential that we cannot obtain on our own.

My final thought is that to regenerate a global ethic, we may need to change it. I would propose that we cease calling this moral commitment global, and instead call it shared. A global ethic was right for globalization in the 1990s, but we are far beyond that, pressed by our ecological crisis to think, feel, and learn simultaneously from within, and beyond, our own community or culture. The term “global” risks homogenizing ethics, in a way simplifying what cannot but be complex, thereby suggesting another attempt at a linear solution for what are fundamentally systems problems. Rather than perpetuate the tired top-down paradigm, shared ethics imply coming from below, honouring our diversity as the first claim of our commonality towards growing shared wisdom. Like the roots in Wohlleben’s forest, shared ethics are hopeful as well as practical, relational as well as self-preserving. They improvise together, not always perfectly but with resilience, to mutually realize sustainability - that is, balance and harmony that is whole and therefore holy.

Thank you.

Video of the lecture


[*] Dr John Dalla Costa is the Founding Director of the Centre for Ethical Orientation. He has worked with corporations, government agencies, NGOs, and numerous institutions to help foster a global ethic for the global economy. He is the author of six books, including The Ethical Imperative: Why Moral Leadership Is Good Business (1998). In addition to consulting, John has taught ethics and social responsibility to undergraduates, MBA students, and Executive-MBA candidates at the Schulich School of Business at York University (Toronto, Canada). He also served as a Founding Faculty member for the Directors College. With a Master of Divinity degree from Regis College at the University of Toronto, John worked on the inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue required for changing business culture. Among his Keynote speeches, John has addressed interfaith Trialogues (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) in Jakarta, Indonesia; Vienna, Austria; Amman, Jordan; and Switzerland. John is a Senior Fellow at the Dialogue Institute, Temple University (Philadelphia, U.S.A.). After being a life-long resident of Toronto, he and his wife, Lucinda Vardey, moved last year to Sansepolcro - a medieval town on the Tiber River in Tuscany, Italy. John is currently writing a book examining governance reform in the Catholic Church.

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